Friday, April 22, 2016

Colin Barrett's "Anhedonia, Here I Come"


Colin Barrett's first book, the collection of short stories, Young Skins, won  the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.  I commented on my favorite story in the collection on this blog when the book first came out in America, but I did not really care for the other stories. Barrett's characters--mostly men—are uneducated, drink, shoot pool, screw around, and do drugs.  I have no objections to any of those aspects of life as the subject of fiction, but they do tend to get flat and tedious after a time.
What bothers me most about Barrett's most recent story, "Anhedonia, Here I come" in The New Yorker, April 18, is the language—not the language of the dialogue, but the language of the narrator, whosever he is.

The action of the story recounts the journey of a man named Bobby to buy some marijuana from his young female supplier. Bobby is a poet, so he says, although we don't have any evidence of the nature or quality of his poetry. At a pub he discovers that a man he has been trying to get to publish his first book of poetry has already published a collection by someone else.  Bobby goes home depressed and tries to light a joint with a cigarette lighter in his apartment building which is filled with gas from a leak.  What happens then is anyone's guess, if anyone cares.

Barrett obviously thinks language is important. In his March 3, 2015 Paris Review Interview with Jonathan Lee, Barrett says:

"If you get the language, the story follows, and in Young Skins the language flowed out of the concept of the town, somehow. What’s a vernacular, a dialect? It is language, weathered and textured and defined by time and geography, the same way a wind-eroded mountainside or a listing, flaking fence post is. I follow the language back to the mouth out of which it is being spoken.
What I look for in sentences is a gnarl, a knuckliness. It’s textural, like a striae or a burr, some embedded trace within the sentence where the register changes or shifts. It’s hard to explain, of course, because it sounds like damage of a kind, but it has to be the right kind of damage, and it may be visual or mental as much as it is aural. Sound in prose is important, but it is not everything. I like a sentence that does exactly what it needs to, just not in the way one would have thought it needed to do it. I like a sentence that booby traps its cadence if required. I like sentences that go on, and ones that end before you think. 
The kind of writing I don’t like is the stuff I call lethally competent. Language that takes no chances, that seeks to efface itself as language, as a material, and offer the clear windowpane on reality, et cetera. The kind of prose a review might call pellucid, or limpid. Pellucid, limpid is the biggest insult there is, to me. In every genus of art, the stuff that has lasted has made a demand."
The following is a definition of Anhedonia from Medinenet.com

"Anhedonia: Loss of the capacity to experience pleasure. The inability to gain pleasure from normally pleasurable experiences. Anhedonia is a core clinical feature of depression, schizophrenia, and some other mental illnesses. An anhedonic mother finds no joy from playing with her baby. An anhedonic football fan is not excited when his team wins. An anhedonic teenager feels no pleasure from passing the driving test. "Anhedonia" is derived from the Greek "a-" (without) "hedone" (pleasure, delight). Other words derived from "hedone" include hedonism (a philosophy that emphasizes pleasure as the main aim of life), hedonist (a pleasure-seeker), and hedonophobia (an excessive and persistent fear of pleasure).

In the New Yorker "This Week in Fiction" blog, Barrett says this about anhedonia.

"If Bobby is to some degree self-aware, he is still dunderingly oblivious in many respects. He thinks he’s sincere but deep down worries he’s a fake. Even though he’s a malign grotesque, there is, I think, that poignant core to him. How do you know you really love the things you think you do? That your concept of self is sincere? The question, despite his own virulent assertions otherwise, is whether Bobby had, or is, succumbing to a state of anhedonia."
 If you look up "Anhedonia," you might want to look up some of the words in the following sentences from Barrett's story:

"one hand broodingly ensconced within a pocket"
"no noise but the late-night dysphagic groans of the elevator's recurringly jammed doors"
"Bobby's peregrinations tended to bring him, as now, into intermittent contact with this body of water"
"He noted the tarry density of its bilious murk"
"[He] took a spumous dump in a toilet cubicle"
"he felt that every other poetic topic of concern was an obfuscation, an eschewal, or a bald retreat from this theme"
"Bobby's psychic sturdiness was, he feared, a manifestation of a submerged but profound and pullating narcissism."
"Becky's caman-wielding cohort lounged on a nearby wall, observing with studied wrath."
"He picked his nose, unseated a gratifyingly intact clump of dried matter, palpated it between his fingers, and flicked it away."
"Then he realized he was abandoning an infant to a vehicle under the operation of a man kneading tinctures of a patently illicit substance into his face.."
"Bobby could feel himself, in her spectral, incipiently canonical gaze, being transubtaniated, molecule by molecule, into obscurity."

I have not found many talking about this story online, but one reader, a man named Dan on GoodReads says:

This is, potentially, the worst short story ever written. It’s bad, it’s dreadful, it’s poorly written, it has no point, it’s not clever. This story is so bad it is an insult to the man who chopped down the tree that was turned into the paper the story was printed on. This story is so terrible the woman who drives the truck that delivers the printing ink to the New Yorker is considering holding the next shipment hostage until the editors apologize personally to her and her family for their incompetence. She works too hard, puts up with too much traffic and back pain to waste her time allowing the staff at the short story department of the New Yorker to waste all that ink on something this bad.
(And he goes on for another five paragraphs)
This is a bit extreme, it seems to me.


However,  it just is not clear why Barrett uses the language that he does in this story.  It does nothing to encourage the reader to identify or sympathize with the central character. Indeed, it does nothing but draw attention to itself and irritate the reader—at least this reader.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Ann Beattie's "For the Best"


Ann Beattie's short stories began to appear in small quarterlies while she was a graduate student in the early 1970s.  When, after many rejections, The New Yorker accepted one of her stories in 1974, she devoted herself to writing full time.  Critical reactions to her early collections--Distortions (1976), Secrets and Surprises (1978), The Burning House (1982), Where You'll Find Me (1986), and What Was Mine (1991), was pretty much split between those who admired her pin-point portraits of the yuppie generation of the 60s and 70s and those who accused her of psychological vacuity and sociological indifference.  Seen as the spokesperson for her generation, Beattie was alternately praised for her satiric view of that era's passivity and criticized for presenting sophisticated New Yorker magazine versions of the characters on television's Seinfield, unable to understand themselves or others.
Park City (1999), was a sort of retrospective summation of her short-story career--containing many Beattie favorites that are entering the canon as anthology selections in college and trade texts, such as "Dwarf House," "A Vintage Thunderbird," "Shifting," "The Lawn Party," "Jacklighting," "Greenwich Time," "The Burning House," "Weekend," "Janus," and "What Was Mine."
Beattie's early stories reflect a keen awareness of how the modern short story since Chekhov explores complex human relationships while seeming on the surface merely to be anecdotal events.  For example, in "Janus," a classic of the so-called minimalist genre, the central character is a real-estate salesperson who uses an elegant bowl as a sort of trick to get buyers interested in a house.  The bowl not only has a personal meaning for her because her lover gave it to her, it also has a mysterious symbolic significance, for it seems to be both practical and spiritual at once.  Every house she puts it in becomes the home that she and her lover never had.  When she refuses to leave her husband, her lover asks, in an obvious reference to the title of the story, "Why be two-faced?"  However, like most Beattie characters, she is unable to make a break, a decision, a commitment.  The dichotomy of the bowl is emblematic of how Beattie makes use of concrete details in  her stories.  For even though it is ordinary, practical, even mundane, it is simultaneously subtle, significant, and shimmering with meaning. 
In contrast to her earlier stories, the eight more recent short fictions in her collection Park City seemed to be moving more toward length and elaboration, making more use of novelistic techniques of character exploration and realistic, non-metaphoric, detail, for example in Going Home with Uccello" and the title story "Park City."  In the former, a woman on a trip to Italy with her sometimes boyfriend has a realization about why he has taken her there when he flirts with a Frenchwoman about an Uccello painting.  She understands that he has taken her to Italy not to persuade her to join him in London forever, but to persuade himself that he loved her so much that no other woman could come between them.  The story ends in a typical Beattie ambiguity about whether the man in the story can commit himself to a relationship or whether he is continuing, as so many of Beattie's male characters, to look for some ineffable dream.
In "Park City," the central character spends a week at a Utah ski resort during the off-season looking after her half-sister's daughter, Nell, who is three, and half-sister's boyfriend's half-daughter, Lyric, who is 14.  The story is filled with dialogue between the three females in which it seems increasingly clear that the woman is more naive than the precocious 14-year-old.  In one particular encounter, the girl spins out a long invented tale to a stranger about having had breast implants.  The story ends when the central character tries to get on a ski lift with the child Nell and the two almost fall off.  They are saved by a man who, significantly, tells her, "the one thing you've got to remember next time is to request a slow start."
In her last collection of "new" short stories, Follies (2005), Beattie left realistic minimalism altogether and just seemed to have a good time writing parodies and creating comic voices.  Several stories in the collection are light experiments with various academic and literary conventions.  In “Duchais,” a graduate student fills in for his sick roommate, taking a job as a professor’s research assistant. However, he is actually made to do a variety of household chores--going to the dry cleaners, mixing drinks, serving as a butler and houseboy at the professor’s home.  Years later, after he has become a lawyer and has returned to Virginia for a twentieth class reunion, he stands in front of the old professor’s house and remembers himself as a young man who had tried to prove he could face difficult things, but instead had felt like a helpless child.
“Apology for a Journey not Taken,” subtitled “How to Write a Story,” is a playful literary game in which a woman has to postpone a planned trip over and over again because of a variety of unexpected events.  The story begins with the narrator saying she could explain why she was not where she should have been, but that perhaps the story should itself evolve.  In fact, the story--perhaps an illustrative exercise for one of Beattie’s creative writing classes--is about the basic narrative truth that stories are, by their very nature, postponements of completion, for if there were no postponements, the story would end immediately. 
“Find and Replace” is based on the metaphor of the word processing function by which a novelist can immediately change the names of her characters by finding all instances of the name and replacing it with another immediately.  The protagonist returns to the home of her childhood in Florida to be with her mother after the death of her father six months earlier.  However, she finds that, in a seeming immediate “find and replace” fashion, the mother is planning to marry another man.  The story is energized by the flippant voice of the daughter narrator, who at first is distressed by her mother’s precipitous action, but, because of a serendipitous encounter with a young man at a car rental agency, realizes how things change, even in a very short time.
Finally, after ten years of short-story silence, Beattie published Maine: The State We're In (2015), which contained fifteen stories she said she wrote all in the summer of 2014—pretty rapid-fire and slap-dash work from a writer who made her reputation writing constrained and crystalline stories of precise prose. I reviewed the collection for Magill's Literary Annual and, for copyright reasons, cannot repeat any of that review here.  I will simple say I was disappointed in the stories. I thought they were loose, rambling, and unfocused—poorly written and careless in syntax and word choice.
Consequently, when her most recent story, "For the Best," appeared in The New Yorker on March 14, 2016, I did not look forward to it.  I have read all of Ann Beattie's stories and have taught many of them before I retired.  I always treasured them because they were such tightly constructed and glowing examples of what has always made me love the short story as the finest fictional form.
However, like most of the stories in her last collection, Maine: The State We're In, "For the Best" is just not anywhere near up to Beattie's best. I have read it three times now, and just cannot find the story in it.
It begins with a 79-year-old man, Gerald, who has just received an invitation to an early Christmas party, warning him, as it were, that his ex-wife Charlotte, who he has not seen since their divorce thirty-one years ago, has also been invited.
The day before the party, Gerald runs into an old acquaintance named Ned on the street and has coffee with him, which provides the opportunity for some back story about Gerald's earlier modelling work and also a dream he has about he and Ned swimming in waters where a shark was "lurking Nearby." Not sure of the relevance of this encounter or dream, that is, if "relevance" is even an issue in this piece of writing.
We meet, briefly, several people at the party, none as interesting as those at the most famous short fiction Christmas party in literature in James Joyce's "The Dead."  And we also learn that this particular day is the same day as the terrorist shooting in San Bernardino, California.
The ex-wife Charlotte, which the first paragraph has alerted us to expect, does not arrive until Gerald is leaving, when she jumps out from behind a Christmas tree in the lobby and says "Boo."  Why does Charlotte do this?  Beattie says she personally would love to jump out from behind a Christmas tree that way—which would even be more fun than writing such a scene.
They walk toward Rockefeller Center, chat about their son, the past, etc., and he puts her in a cab to take her home. Then he runs into, "of all people," Tod Browne, a gay acquaintance who was at the party and who takes him home in his limo.
Gerald's final encounter is with Alonzo, his doorman, and they talk briefly about being a foreigner in America and about Alonzo's wife who has died.  Gerald is guiltily puzzled that he did not know about Alonzo's wife, but finally manages a bit of social consciousness when he scolds a young woman from the penthouse of his building who asks Alonzo to walk her dog.
The story ends with Gerald thinking back about his ex-wife, catching sight of himself in the mirrored wall of the elevator and realizing that he had grown old.
If you lay this story alongside Joyce's "The Dead" and carefully analyze the language, I think you might find what makes one a brilliant short story with all the attributes of the form in subtle arrangement and the other just a lot of stuff that happens one night in New York just before Christmas.  (I have talked a bit about "The Dead" in a couple of places on this blog. You can search for those discussions if you are interested.)
Certainly there are similarities between Joyce's Gabriel and Beattie's Gerald, but Gerald does not have the insight that Gabriel does, and Beattie does not establish a thematic pattern of self-deception that Joyce does.  Everything that happens in Joyce's story leads up to Gabriel's recognition in the hotel room mirror, whereas a helluva lot of "stuff" happens in Beattie's story that seems just "stuff that happen—not all of which leads to any recognition for Gerald, except "I grow old, I grow old."
In her interview with New Yorker editor Deborah Treisman in "This Week in Fiction," Beattie even admits that much that happens in this piece is just stuff that seemed to happen when she was writing it or thinking about writing it.  For example, she says she just "happened" to be in New York on the day on the San Bernardino shooting. Although she says she knew that her being there and what happened in California might not have any inherent place "literarily" in her story, "Still, that's what happened, and sometimes when I'm writing I just go with the givens of a situation."
Going with the "givens" does not describe writing a good short story.  It is not something that Chekhov or Joyce or any great short story writer would give in to.
Granted, Gerald seems to have gone through life rather oblivious to the lives of those around him—God knows where his mind has been all these years—but this rambling and crowded account of the night of the Christmas party does not clinch together with meaning to give any human or literary significance to his realization in the last words of the piece that "he'd grown old."
 I miss the Ann Beattie of my youth.


Friday, April 8, 2016

Fiona McFarlane's "Buttony"

I have been a subscriber to The New Yorker for many years, primarily for the fiction (which is usually a short story, but sometimes--sad to say--a chapter from a novel. They pay the best for stories, and thus can demand the best, which often, but not always, works out well for both writer and reader. 
However, since the mag comes out once a week (mostly), I sometimes do not get a chance to read the stories right away. So after scanning through the cartoons and the poems and reading a compelling article, I stack them on my desk, promising myself to "get to them" soon. Stories, although they may be shorter, just take me longer to read than nonfiction—after all, I am not just questing for content--I want to have some time to read slowly, with my lips moving, and read again and again.
Today, after neglecting the stack on my desk for the past six weeks, I decided to "do my duty" and catch up a bit. I share with you my reading experience of Fiona McFarlane's story from the March 7, 2016 issue, "Buttony."
McFarlane, an Australian writer, who has spent some time in the U.S., is the author of one novel—The Night Guest (2013) and a collection of short stories, The High Places, which is due out in May of this year. She is in her mid-thirties and has a Ph.D. from Cambridge and an M.F.A. from University of Texas, Austin.  She published one previous story in The New Yorker, entitled "Art Appreciation" (May 13, 2013), which I somehow missed.  I dug it out and will read it later.
In the magazine's usual "This Week in Fiction" blog, McFarlane talks with fiction editor Deborah Treisman about the story, which centers on a child's guessing game involving a hidden button. Treisman asks her if she has ever played the game or whether she invented it.  McFarlane says she ran across the game in a book by Steven Connor entitled Paraphernalia: The Curious Lives of Magical Things, but cannot remember ever playing it. (Connor is a literature professor from London; I just ordered the book—which is why I am being crowded out of my office by books, even though quite a few are now stored in that mysterious place called "the cloud" accessible by my Kindle Fire).
I don't know if this game, which McFarlane calls "buttony," is played in Australia, but I remember it as a popular game from my childhood—I am surprised that Treisman did not know it—called "button, button, who's got the button?"
In McFarlane's story, the central characters are a school teacher named Miss Lewis, a student favorite named Joseph, and the twenty-one other students in her class. On the day of the story, the kids want to play "buttony."  They form a circle, hold out their hands, and close their eyes, while Joseph, who has been sent in to get a button from Miss Lewis's desk drawer, walks around the circle and touches each pair of hands, saying at the same time "buttony."  After he goes to all twenty-one students, they are told to close their hands and open their eyes; each student is given the chance to guess who's got the button. The one who has been holding the button—not the one who guesses correctly-- gets to "hide" it the next time.
On this particular day that the children play the game, something different happens—as it must, or else there would be no story: When Joseph gets the button on a subsequent round of the game, he walks around the circle but does not hide the button in anyone's hand, but rather puts it in his mouth.  Only Miss Lewis has her eyes open to see this action. When the children guess everyone and still cannot find the button, they begin to kick and shout and rebel against Miss Lewis—opening her hands, looking up her skirt, and pulling the pins from her hair to look for the button.
In her interview with Deborah Treisman, McFarlane says as the wrote the story she was interested in the "strange ritualistic way in which the game plays out so many childhood fears—of rejection, of being overlooked or lied to or tricked."
And indeed, if you put yourself in the game, you can imagine its potential for significance. The twenty-one kids have their eyes closed and thus live in darkness during the game's duration.  They hold out their hands in supplication, waiting for an undeserved gift, something to be presented to them by a powerful giver, waiting to be chosen—feeling the disappointment of the giver touching their hands but putting nothing in it, and then the joy of feeling the button in the palm.
And when it is time to guess who has the button, only you really know is that you do not have it.  As in a combination of poker-face and counting cards, the players watch the faces of the rest of the players to see if they give themselves away and try to keep track of all those who have played their hand by saying they do not have the button.
The game has been mentioned in several places, such as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland, but perhaps the most important reference is from Robert Frost's 1922 "The Witch of Coos," that begins with a witch saying:
Folks think a witch who has familiar spirits
She could call up to pass a winter evening
But won't, should be burned at the stake or something.
Summoning spirits isn't "Button, button,
Who's got the button," you're to understand.
 However, it is precisely McFarlane's point that the game, as it is played in her story is not merely a child's game, but something more powerfully latent with meaning. 
The key line, one that McFarlane cannot resist using, is: "They were like children in a fairy tale, under a spell." And yes, the story has all the elements of a fairy tale—a hero with special powers, an adult who is somehow mysteriously guilt and must be punished, a ritual or ceremony, a magic object, children spellbound, a secret, a trick, a childhood rebellion against the adult, and a last-minute rescue.
"Buttony" creates the kind of seemingly trivial, yet ultimately magical encounter with alternate reality that the short story has always done so well. And as usual, it has something to do with the tension between the sacred and the profane—between the spiritual and the trivial—between innocence and experience.
McFarlane handles these traditional short story elements quite well in choice of detail and in storytelling syntax. For example, "All the children handled the button with reverence, but none more than Joseph. He was gifted in solemnity. He had a processional walk and moved his head slowly when his name was called—and it was regularly called."
We know that something must be at stake for one character, and we know it is Miss Lewis, for the story is told from her perspective, and it is she who is "responsible." McFarlane tells us:  "Miss Lewis wanted her children to live in a heightened way, and she encouraged this sort of ceremony."
So it is really no surprise that Miss Lewis is the one who is attacked at the end of the story, for even though the button is secretly hidden in Joseph's mouth, it is she, the children suspect, who has the button. Children always know there is a secret, and who else must have except the adult, the teacher? 
When one child looks up under her dress, as if there is where the secret must lie, and another tears through her hair, as though it must somehow be in her head, Miss Lewis cries out and sees one of the other teachers running toward her with Joseph behind him, "not quite running, not altogether, but like a shadow, long and blank and beautiful." For Joseph is not so much real as he is a supernatural or spiritual embodiment of forces that we suspect lie around us, but that we can never really verify.  We don't know what they are, but we know they mean something.
At the end of her interview with Deborah Treisman, McFarlane says: "Most of all, I'm drawn to those moments when people do things that are mysterious even to themselves." 
She could not come up with a better characterization of the short story form than that.
 If you have not read the story and still have the March 7 issue of The New Yorker lying in your "gonna get to it" stack, then you might enjoy this little two-page tale. Let me know what you think.  One of the things I most miss about teaching—maybe the only thing—is talking to other readers about what we have read.
I will try to get to the Ann Beattie story "For the Best" in the March 14, 2016 issue next.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Happy St. Patrick's Day: 2016: Some Modern Irish Short Stories I Admire

Happy St. Patrick's Day!  Here are some comments about a few modern Irish writers I admire.
It is an undisputed fact of literary history that whereas British writers and readers have always favored the novel over the short story (although that may now be changing), just the opposite has been the case for their Irish neighbors. Irish short-story writer Frank O'Connor has attributed this distinction to differences between national attitudes toward society.  Whereas in England, O'Connor says, the intellectual's attitude toward society is, "It must work," in Ireland it is, "It can't work."  The implication of O'Connor's remark, echoed by many critics since the 1963 publication of his well-known book on the short story, The Lonely Voice, is that whereas the novel derives its subject matter from an organized society, the short story springs from an oral, anecdotal tradition.
This view of short prose narrative as a form detached from any cultural background, drawing its interest from the striking nature of the event itself, has always been a central characteristic of short fiction.  One of the most important implications of short fiction's detachment from social context and history, argued early theorists, was that although the anecdote on which the story was based might be trivial and its matter slight, its manner or way of telling had to be appealing, thus giving the narrator a more important role than in other forms of fiction.  The result was a shift in authority for the tale and thus a gradual displacement away from strictly formulaic structures of received story toward techniques of verisimilitude that create credibility.  The displacement is from mythic authority to the authority of a single perspective that creates a unifying atmosphere or tone of the experience.  It is this focus on a single perspective rather than on an organized social context that has made the Irish short story largely dependent on anecdote and the galvanizing voice of the story-teller.
Sean O'Faolain has argued that the short story thrives best within a romantic framework; the more organized and established a country is, O'Faolain claims, the less likely that the short story will flourish there.  Although Ireland, a country that stubbornly sticks to its folk roots, has been a most hospitable place for the short-story form, O'Faolain seems to have constantly fought against the romanticism of the short story, yearning for the realism of the novel.  Thus, his stories reveal a continual battle between his cultural predilection for the short story (with its roots in the folk and its focus on the odd and romantic slant) and his conviction that realism is the most privileged artistic convention.
O'Faolain's stories reside uneasily between the romanticism to which he was born and the realism for which he yearned.  His basic technique might be called "poetic realism," a kind of prose in which objects and events seem to be presented objectively, but yet are transformed by the unity of the form itself into meaningful metaphors.  O'Faolain is a craftsman with an accurate vision of his country and its people; however, he is a self-conscious imitator of more famous precursors, never quite able to find a distinctive voice that manifests his individual talent. 
Although best known for her Country Girls Trilogy and other novels, Edna O'Brien is the author of half a dozen short story collections that have augmented her reputation as an Irish writer who has not been afraid to present Irish women as sexual human beings, who often find themselves caught in romantic fantasies.  An early story by O'Brien, "Irish Revel," from her first collection The Love Object (1968) and a late story, "Lantern Slides," from the book of the same name published in 1990, both of which are anthology favorites, are good examples of her typical themes and her stylistic range. 
O'Brien's "Lantern Slides," the title story of her last collection, is also a tribute to "The Dead," for it recounts a contemporary Dublin party in which a number of characters tell their own stories of love and disappointment.  Just as in Joyce's story, the focus here is on the ghostly nature of the past in which all have experienced the loss of romantic fantasies.  However, the power of desire has such a hold on the characters that chivalric romance seems an attainable, yet not quite reachable, grail-like goal.  When the estranged husband of one of the women arrives, everyone hopes it is the wandering Odysseus returned home in search of his Penelope.  "You could feel the longing in the room, you could touch it--a hundred lantern slides ran through their minds...It was like a spell...It was as if life were just beginning."
There are no sentimental images of the emerald isle in John MaGahern's stories in his best-known collection Nightlines, published in 1970; many are darkly pessimistic.  Moreover, it is  not the speaking "voice" of the Irish storyteller that dominates his stories, but the stylized tone of modern minimalism.  Typical of the Joycean tradition, McGahern's stories are both realistic and lyrical at once.  Also typical of that tradition, McGahern is not interested in confronting his characters with social abstractions but rather the universal challenges of guilt, responsibility, commitment, and death.
McGahern's best-known story, "The Beginning of an Idea,"  opens with the first sentences of Eva Lindberg's notebook, which describe how Anton Chekhov was carried home to Moscow on an ice wagon with the word "Oysters" chalked on the side.  Because the lines haunt her, she gives up her work as a theater director and her affair with a married man to go to Spain to write an imaginary biography of Chekhov.  However, once there, she finds she cannot write.  When a local policeman she befriends entraps her into having sex, she packs up and leaves, feeling rage about her own foolishness.  On the train she has the bitter taste of oysters in her mouth, and when a wagon passes, she has a sudden desire to look and see if the word Oysters is chalked on it.
William Trevor is, without question, the most respected contemporary Irish short-story writer. Trevor has said that having been born Irish, he observes the world through "Irish sensibilities" and takes for granted an Irish way of doing things.  However, as a writer he knows he has to "stand back" so far that he is "beyond the pale, outside the society he comments upon in order to get a better view of it."  The result is that while most of Trevor's stories are not specifically Irish, even those that are centered in Ireland transcend limitations of time and place.  Stories from such collections as The Ballroom of Romance (1972), Angels at the Ritz (1975), and Beyond the Pale (1982) have been republished in The Stories of William Trevor, published in 1983.
One of Trevor's most famous stories, "Beyond the Pale," is a powerful example of his treatment of an Irish theme.  When two British couples make an annual visit to County Antrim on north of Belfast, there seems to be no sign of the so-called Troubles.  However, trouble in this story is submerged beneath the calm surface.  The narrator, Milly, is having an affair with Dekko, whose wife Cynthia devours all the information she can find about Irish history and society.  After a young man commits suicide at the hotel, Cynthia tells the others the story he told her before he died--a romantic fairy tale of two children who fell in love and lived an idyll one summer at the hotel where the two British couples come annually for their own idyll.  However, the young girl, becoming involved with political terrorism, is killed, after which the boy kills himself in despair.  Cynthia uses the story, which everyone thinks she has invented, to represent all those put beyond the pale by violence and deception, ultimately relating it to the deception of her husband.  Thus, although the story is an Irish parable in which romantic children grow into murdering riff-raff, it is also a story of the deceiving British who try to ignore their responsibility for the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Trevor also juxtaposes Irish and British values in "Autumn Sunshine," this time in the person of an elderly Protestant cleric whose daughter has brought back a young man from England who identifies with the Irish and wishes to align himself with Rebels in the South.  However, the cleric recognizes that the young man espouses the Irish cause only because it is one way the status quo in his own country can be damaged.  Such men, the cleric thinks, deal out death and chaos, "announcing that their conscience insisted on it."
"Death in Jerusalem," which Trevor chose for his edition of The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories, focuses on Father Paul, an Irish priest who has gone away to America to become successful in the church and society, and his brother Francis, who has stayed home to care for their aging mother.  When Father Paul finally convinces Francis to accompany him on a tour of Jerusalem, Francis is distressed that the actuality of what he sees does not match the idealized images of holy places he has in his imagination.  The Via Dolorosa, for example, does not compare to his imaginative notion of Christ's final journey; he closes his eyes and tries to visualize it as he has seen it in his mind's eye.  When Father Paul receives a telegram that their mother has died, he holds off telling his brother until he sees more of the Holy Land.  However, Francis says Jerusalem does not feel as Jerusalem should; saying he will always hate the Holy Land, he insists on going home immediately.  The story ends with an image of the priest, who doesn't look and act as observers think he should, smoking and drinking alone.
William Trevor is a master of the Irish short story, not because he writes stories about Ireland and the Irish, but because he has that fine artistic ability, like his most famous predecessor, James Joyce, to write about trivial, everyday experiences in such a way that they become resonant with universal significance.  Trevor's stories seem to have deceptively simple realistic surfaces, until one begins to probe a bit more deeply to discover how tightly built and powerfully realized they are.   In the short fiction of William Trevor, the mere stuff of the world is transformed into artistic significance.  Trevor has said that the artist "attempts to extract an essence from the truth by turning it into what John Updike has called 'fiction's shapely lies'."
Desmond Hogan's "Diamonds at the Bottom of the Sea," from his collection of the same name published in 1979, is a delicate love story about a man who, after living alone for many years, meets an old love who has lived in America.  After the death of her husband, she returns to Ireland, and they both discover how little of their old love has died.  The man seems dazed by this turn of events, as if it were all a dream.  And indeed, the story is like an embodiment of a daydream fantasy of first love regained, aging forestalled, and old hopes rekindled.  "Can't you see," the woman tells him, "it's the intense moments of youth.  They won't leave, try as you will."
The main development of the Irish short, from its roots in the rich folklore of the Irish people to its post-Joycean modernism, has been one in which the old local color conventions and stereotypes of Ireland and its people have been replaced with an image of Ireland as a modern European country.  Although many tourists may bemoan the loss of the old rural images, lamenting that Ireland and its literature is losing its distinctiveness, the fact is, most of those stereotypes were due to the biting poverty of many of the people, the harshness of British rule, and the despair and hopelessness that lead to the stereotypes of Irish immigration and Irish drinking. The short story will probably always be a powerful literary form for Irish writers, but it will probably never again be a form that perpetuates the old local color legends of the Emerald Isle.



Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The British Tradition of the Fantasy Short Story in Best British Short Stories: 2015


In his  Guardian review of Best British Short Stories 2015 last July, Nicholas Lezard suggested that editor Nicholas Royle must have a soft spot for the "weird or uncanny," since it is behind some of the best stories in the collection, such as Bee Lewis's invention about the origins of Antony Gormley's iron beach statues in "The Iron Men" and Helen Marshall's "Secondhand Magic," which he said gave him the willies. Iain Robinson also noted in his "Unpacking My Library" blog the "magical, the uncanny, and the downright bizarre" evident in many of the stories in the 2015 volume, such as Alison Moore's "Eastmouth," KJ Orr's "The Lakeshore Limited," and Rebecca Swirsky's "The Common People."
Even stories that seem set in the real world of social unrest have a pervasive tone of fairy tale in the 2015 edition of the BBSS. For example, Julianne Pachico's story "Lucky," takes place in a third world country beset by Communist rebels. A young girl's parents and brother go off to spend the holidays in the mountains, but she wants to stay home, cared for by servants. Much of the language suggests an otherworldly/fantasy reality. For example, when the young girl hears the word guerrilla, she pictures men dressed up in gorilla suits roaming the jungle. She reads Arthurian fantasy novels filled with knights and queens. Angelina, the servant whose white apron swirls about her like a cape, mysteriously disappears.
A man comes to the door wearing a shapeless brown robe, saying he is sorry he is late, as if she should be expecting him. He calls her "Princess" and knows that her parents are not there.  He calls her mija, or "my daughter" in Spanish and tells her he is there to help her. She spends the day in her bedroom watching Disney movies on her laptop, such as Beauty and The Beast.  When the power goes out, she checks the generator, recalling how the gardener would go to the back of the house and as if  by "magic," the lights would come on.  The computers in the office at her house seem like "medieval relics," the screens staring at her like grey-faced children asking for coins at traffic lights. When the man comes back, she stumbles to the door holding her fantasy book to her torso like a shield.  Once again, he urges her to open to door, calling her "daughter." His robe swirls around him like a cape.
The girl thinks she needs to figure this out. She doesn't know it yet, "but there's something waiting for her. It could be a future or it could be something else." In a daze, she opens the door and the man lets out a sigh that could also be a groan of pain. She turns her head sharply at what might be the flash of a white apron or the metallic shine of a machete. "It feels like noticing the shadow of her own half-closed eyelid, something had always been there and should have been seen at least a thousand times before."  Joyce Carol Oates uses this narrative convention in "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" when a strangely real/yet fable-like, man shows up at her door and carries her away
Bee Lewis's "The Iron Men" also has a realistic, "ripped from the headlines" basis—a teacher who has been accused of sexual misconduct or attack by one of his students.  The man is a science teacher, who thinks in terms of chemistry and physics; for example he and his wife, he says fit together like hydrogen and oxygen. Although he is exonerated of the charge, he says "mud sticks," although he says he will not go into the physics of it. His wife takes their daughter and leaves him. His life, he says changed, "decayed, oxidised," and he slowly turns into iron, with the sea sloughing off layers of rust and metal like skin. He is immobilized on the beach with a hundred men who have lost their place in life. "Time passes whilst ferrous oxide ravages our outer shells, returning us to the universe." The story is based on Anthony Gormley's 2006 exhibition called "Another Place." of 100 iron statues, all anchored in the sand over a stretch of Crosby beach near Liverpool. 
Jim Hinks' "Green Boots' Cave" is about a man named David Sharp who tries to climb Everest, but makes it only as far as 450 metres below the summit at a place called "Green Boots' Cave," so called because the body of an Indian climber lies there, face-down in the snow, in lime-green climbing boots. Sharp freezes to death here. He is passed by forty other climbers ascending to the summit, including a team of filmmakers.  The story ends with this identification with the reader:  "He is you entirely.  Except that, he realizes, something about being you doesn’t feel right.  Something is haunting you.  A sense that there is something else.  Something lurking behind every thought and feeling you have.  Something going on that you will realise if you can only wake up to the fact."
Uschi Gatwarde's "The Clinic" is a short piece about a couple who have a child that is being tested by government agencies; this sci-fi fable takes on a fairy tale aspect when they decide to run away to the forest with her.
Tracy Rosenberg's story "May the Bell Be Rung for Harriet"  is about a young woman sent to a home to care for a female child whose "deceased mother was a butterfly."  The child turns into a butterfly also.
Helen Marshall's "Secondhand Magic," which is about the requirements of real magic, focuses on a boy who wants to be a magician, but is made to disappear in his own top hat by a witch.
Such fantasy/fable stories are part of a long tradition of the British short story.  In the book I am currently working on, which attempts to chart the historical/generic development of the British short story from the eighteenth century to the present, I try to identify the narrative conventions and themes that guide the development of the form. Here are some of the stories that are most important to that tradition:
The earliest short narrative in English literature that still remains a fairly well-known anthology piece is Daniel Defoe's "A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal" (1706). "Mrs. Veal" has been called an example of the gothic mode that began to dominate English short fiction later on. The piece presents the kind of ghostly apparition, which before the eighteenth century might well have been accepted in folklore stories as an article of belief and faith, in an era in which such willing acceptance was no longer common.
The first single work of short fiction in English literature that perhaps set the tone for all nineteenth-century English short fiction, is Horace Walpole's "The Castle of Otranto" (1765).  However, there are two types of gothic short fiction in the late eighteenth century: the gothic tale best represented by "The Castle of Otranto and the gothic fragment, the best known example of which is "Sir Bertrand" by Anne Letitia Aiken, better known as Mrs. Barbauld, prefaced originally by an essay entitled "On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror." 
The best known example of the oral folk tale in the early nineteenth century is Sir Walter Scott's insert tale in  Redgauntlet which is often anthologized as "Wandering Willie's Tale" (1824).  Told by the blind fiddler Willie Steenson, the story has been called "almost a textbook example of the well-told tale as opposed to the short story." "Wandering Willie's Tale" forms an interesting bridge between the traditional folk tale in which confrontations with the devil are the stock in trade and the later British mystery story in which the supposed supernatural is accounted for in a grotesque but naturalistic way.
Wilkie Collins's "The Traveller's Story of a Terribly Strange Bed" (1856) is a particularly clear example of a supposed supernatural mystery being explained naturalistically. This tension between reality and unreality and between the natural and the supernatural is even more obviously foregrounded in the best known story of Edward Bulwer Lytton, "The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain" (1859),
H. P. Lovecraft has called "The Willows" the foremost Algernon Blackwood tale. And indeed it is a story that seems typical of Blackwood's thematic structure of having an average man, through a "flash of terror or beauty," experience something beyond the sensory reality of the everyday.
Arthur Machen's most famous tale, "The Great God Pan," is a story that H. P. Lovecraft praises for the manner of its telling.  And indeed, the manner of the telling is the central concern of this story which, like Blackwood's tale, is based on the assumption that beneath external reality lies another realm  that man intrudes upon at his peril. 
Of the three great latter-day gothic writers of the nineteenth century, Montague Rhodes James is the one most acutely self-conscious of the fictional tradition within which he writes.  An extensively-read student of the ghost story tradition, James knew the convention so well that he could play with it.  "Casting the Runes," James's most anthologized tale, is indeed a typical short story for its time;  its content consists of late nineteenth-century occultism, and its structure is a variant of the typical combination of demonism and detective work that has characterized the genre from Bulwer-Lytton and Collins to Blackwood and Machen. 
W. W. Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw," (1902) like James's "Casting of the Runes," provides a helpful structural transition between the stories of Blackwood and Machen and those of Dunsany, De Le Mare, and Saki; for although it communicates the sense of horror of the earlier writers, it makes use of the well-made short story structure and the ironic tone of later ones. 
The best-known stories of Lord Dunsany (Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett), "The Ghosts" and "The Two Bottles of Relish," are self-conscious parodies of the two most popular types of late nineteenth-century British short fiction--the ghost story and the detective story respectively.  Both make explicit the conventions and rules of their genres, which in fact constitute the very subject matter of the stories themselves.  As is typical of such parodies, the stories depend on the conventions of their generic models even as they lay them bare.
Walter Allen calls Walter de la Mare the most distinguished of the writers who made the Edwardian age a "haunted period" in English literature.  Part of the reason is the poetic "dignity" of de la Mare as opposed to what is often called the "crude Gothicism" of his contemporaries. Lord David Cecil calls de la Mare a symbolist for whom the outer world is only an "incarnation of an internal drama.  As opposed to other Edwardian short-story writers, de la Mare, says Cecil, uses ghosts not as devices to arouse shudders, but rather as symbols of the eternal world of the spirit. 
To move from the stories of Dunsany and de la Mare to those of Saki (H. H. Munro) is to move from the world of story as a means of parodying story and story as a means of creating a metaphor for the alternate reality of imagination to a world in which story is presented as joke. Because Saki marks a shift in Edwardian short fiction to the trick ending story that dominates popular short stories both in England and America at the turn of the century, his stories often focus on the nature of story itself.

These are only a few of the British writers who  have used the short story form to explore the fine line between fantasy and reality. Both Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling wrote fantasy stories, as did A. E. Coppard and E. M Forster  More recently, the fantasy tradition has been used by Julian Barnes, A.S. Byatt, Angela Carter, Graham Swift, Ian McEwan, and many others. Nicholas Royle's choice of many of the stories in the 2015 edition of Best British Short Stories reflects that the tradition is still alive in the current revival of interest in the short story genre in Great Britain.

Monday, February 29, 2016

O. Henry Prize Stories 2015: Part II--My Favorite Stories


In my opinion (and thank goodness it is not only my opinion) the best short stories are the most mysterious ones, or the ones written by writers who are obsessed by mystery.  For some reason (perhaps many reasons), the short story (both by tradition and generic qualities) is particularly suited to evoke mystery (or to create mystery where many never felt mystery before).  And in my opinion (again, thank goodness I am not the only one to think so), the best readers of short stories are those fascinated by mystery—not simple, solvable  mystery, but, (forgive me for using such a redundant adjective) mysterious mysteries, which, by definition, are the human kind. (I talk about this issue in more detail in a couple of chapters of my book I Am Your Brother.) One of my favorite writers who is of this opinion is Flannery O'Connor.  Here's one of the many things she says about mystery:
The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery. Fiction should be both canny and uncanny.
I could go on and on quoting Flannery O'Connor about mystery, but you can read her yourself in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose.  I will only cite one more O'Connor observation:
The particular problem of the short story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible.  He has only a short space to do it in and he can't do it by statement.  He has to do it by showing, not by saying, and by showing the concrete—so that his problem is really how to make the concrete work double time for him.
 Eudora Welty once said:  "The first thing we see about a story is its mystery.  And in the best stories, we return at the last to see mystery again.  Every good story has mystery--not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement.  As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful."  "The mystery of allurement."  Yes, I believe that.  And yes, when it comes to the stories I like best, the more I read them, the more mysterious they become.  I love being caught in the beautiful mystery of them. 
Umberto Eco uses a metaphor to describe what is required of us from such stories in his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods:  "There are two ways of walking through a wood," Eco says: 
“The first is to try one or several routes (so as to get out of the wood as fast as possible, say, or to reach the house of grandmother, Tom Thumb, or Hansel and Gretel); the second is to walk so as to discover what the wood is like and find out why some paths are accessible and others are not.  Similarly, there are two ways of going through a narrative text.  Any such text is addressed, above all, to a model reader of the first level, who wants to know quite rightly how the story ends (whether Ahab will manage to capture the whale, or whether Leopold Bloom will meet Stephen Dedalus after coming across him a few times on the sixteenth of June 1904).  But every text is addressed to a model reader of the second level, who wonders what sort of reader that story would like him or her to become and who wants to discover precisely how the model author goes about serving as a guide for the reader. In order to know how a story ends, it is usually enough to read it once.
However, in contrast, says Eco, “to become the model reader of the second level the text has to be read many times, and certain stories endlessly."
And it is because I like mystery that my favorite stories in the 2015 edition of O. Henry Prize Stories are: Christopher Merkner's "Cabins," Emily Ruskovich's "Owl," Thomas Pierce's "Ba Baboon," and Elizabeth McCracken's "Birdsong from the Radio."
In his comments on his story, Christopher Merkner says that the mystery that gave rise to "Cabins" struck him when a friend told him that he was getting a divorce. Merkner says he realized that the friend had already told fifteen other mutual acquaintances about the impending divorce and that what hooked him into the story was his intuition that the real divorce was between him and his friend's personal life, as well as the personal lives of the fifteen mutual friends who have told him nothing about the divorce. The problem, Merkner says, was his foolish assumption that had "some sort of intimate arrangement with the details of these people's personal lives."  And as he worked through the story, he wondered how many lives he assumed he knew, but ultimately knew nothing about at all, "or just very tiny bits and pieces." 
This mystery of the lives and minds of others is perhaps the central mystery the short story form most often hooks into, and perhaps why short stories are, by their very nature, made up of "very tiny bits and pieces."
This mystery of human identity—just who someone really is—is also at the center of Thomas Pirce's story "Ba Baboon." In his brief commentary at the end of the book, he tells about how his grandfather suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident and became a different person afterwards—personality changes that both frightened and fascinated him, concluding this way: "I think most of us like to assume we are who we ae and will be that way until we die.  It can be an unsettling thought, the extent to which our identities are so malleable, the degree to which we are barely ourselves, even from one moment to the next."
Elizabeth McCracken says her story actually began as an assignment for the editor of Fairy Tale Review, who asked her to write a story for a collection of stories based on myths. She hunted about for a myth to use without much success until one day her children suggested, lightheartedly, that her New Year's resolution might be biting them less. McCrackin says, before she had children, this parental desire often expressed as "I could eat you up I love you so," was unfathomable to her, but now she understood it.  It made her think of "Lamia," best known perhaps from Keats' poem, and she did some research and found one version in which Lamia was a woman who had gone mad from grief after the death of her children and turned into an animal, and then, McCracken says, "well, it all made sense to me."
Emily Ruskovich says her story began with a single image: "a woman lying in the grass at night, shot down by a group of boys who had mistaken her for an owl."  In an interview with Hannah Tinti, she says it began with another story she had started to write with a peripheral character for whom she tried to suggest a backstory with this sentence: "He had lived in the trailer ever since his mother was shot by a group of boys, who mistook her for an owl." She notes in her end-of-book commentary that two other images clustered about this central image—coffee grounds spread on a dirt floor and giant-headed inbred cats—both from her family. She says she felt these three images all connected in some way and that she set out to write the story to discover how.  In her interview with Tinti, Ruskovich says a friend of her who saw an early draft told her that the boys in the story reminded her of the Lost Boys in Peter Pan—another connection that fascinated Ruskovich, especially for the way it evokes how we can be haunted by our childhood loves to the point we almost don't believe they are real, but yet we find ourselves waiting until they return.
When Frank Kermode in his Norton lectures twenty years ago asked, "Why Are Narratives Obscure?"  he cited Kafka's parable  "Before the Law" in The Trial. It’s about a man who comes to beg admission to the Law but is kept out by a doorkeeper.  So he sits there year after year in inconclusive conversation with the doorkeeper outside the door unable to get in.  When he is old and near death, he sees an immortal radiance streaming from the door.  He asks the doorkeeper why he alone has come to this door and receives this reply: "This door was intended only for you.  Now I am going to shut it."  A terrible parable, you would have to agree.  "To perceive the radiance of the shrine," say Kermode, "is not to gain access to it; the Law, or the Kingdom to those within, such as the doorkeeper, may be powerful and beautiful, but to those outside they are absolutely inexplicable.  This is a mystery."  While the insiders protect the Law without understanding it, the outsiders like us see an uninterpretable radiance and die."  A terrible parable indeed.
Kermode is concerned, of course, with the radiant obscurity of parables, a word that in the Gospel of Mark is used as a synonym for "mystery."  It is the radiance Welty refers to when she says the "first thing we notice about our story is that we can't really see the solid outlines of it--it seems bathed in something of its own.  It is wrapped in an atmosphere.  This is what makes it shine, perhaps, as well as what initial obscures its plain, real shape." To Marlowe, sitting Buddha-like on the deck telling the story of Kurtz, to outsiders to the mystery, the "meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that, sometimes, are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine."
Why is there is apt to be more mystery in short stories than in novels?  I will simply list three that seem possible to me. 
First there is the historical and prehistorical source of the short story in myth and oral tale that, by its very nature, was concerned with mystery, for everything was mystery and story was the only explanatory model available.  A genre never completely departs from its origins.
Second, there is short story's dependence more on pattern than plot for its structure.  As a result of this dependence, the action of a short story is more apt to be organized around an implicit principle or idea rather than a series of events occurring causally in time.  The puzzle effect is inevitable.  It is no accident that America's first theorist of the short story also invented the detective mystery story.
Third, there is the mystery of motivation in short stories.  It is not easy to determine why Bartleby prefers not to, what Roderick Usher is so afraid of, why Wakefield goes to the next street over and hides out for all those years.  Part of the problem may be the short story's close relationship to the romance form, which, allegorical in its nature, develops characters that, even as they seem to be like real people in the real world, are driven by the discourse demands of the narrative and thus act as if they are obsessed, propelled by some central force rather than merely logically, causally, or randomly.
Watch how Emily Ruskovich's "Owl" creates the voice of the husband who is mystified by his wife, who seems both adult and child at once, looking for that lost childhood  that seems just out of reach. And admire how Ruskovich, without forcing the allusion, gradually merges her her story into that never neverland of Peter Pan and Wendy.
Read Christopher Merkner's "Cabins" and enjoy how the narrator of the story moves back and forth between reality (whatever that is) and fantasy as he deals with the utter mystery of those he thinks he knows.
Put yourself in that tiny pantry with the two main characters of Thomas Pierce's "Ba Baboon" as they frantically search for the magic word that will pacify the dogs that growl at the door.
Identify with the distraught mother of Elizabeth McCracken's "Birdsong from the Radio," as she is driven to regain that which is lost in the only way possible to totally integrate the other—by devouring them.  As Kristen Iskandrian, who picked this story as her favorite, says, the voice of the story seems to come "from the belly of a timeless and placeless place, from the nowhere/everywhere where fable gets forged."
As Flannery O'Connor says, "The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery." 




Thursday, February 25, 2016

The O. Henry Prize Stories: 2015: Thumbnail Notes: Part I


I have been reading the 2015 O. Henry Prize Story  collection this month, and, although the subtitle of the collection is The Best Stories of the Year, it has not been an invigorating experience. 
As you probably know, the twenty stories are chosen solely by Laura Furman (albeit with some help from a couple of editors at Anchor Books). Furman teaches creative writing at the University of Texas, Austin, and has been the series editor since 2003. Each year three other writers are asked to blindly pick the story they "most admire" from the group and write a brief appreciation of it.
What follows are some brief thumbnail notes of my own opinion of half the stories in the collection. I have not read all the stories Professor Furman read, from which she chose these twenty stories as the "best of the year," so I cannot challenge her comparative choices. However, I am not sure I understand by what criteria these competent but ordinary ten stories constitute the "best."
 I will try to post some comments on the other half—some of which I "admire"-- next week.

Percival Everett, "Finding Billy White Feather"
You know what kind of story you are in for in the third paragraph when, after Oliver Campbell finds a note on his back door from Billy White Feather, announcing that twin Appaloosa foals are for sale and scolds his dog for not being much of a watchdog:
"The dog said nothing."
Campbell has never met Billy White Feather, so he goes looking for him and gets conflicting reports about what White Feather  looks like. The first person Campbell queries says he is a tall, skinny white boy with blue eyes and a blonde pony-tail. The second person tells him that White Feather is a big guy with red hair and a huge mustache. Another says he is an Indian with a jet-black braid down to his narrow butt.  Still another says he is very fat. Everybody agrees that White Feather is an asshole.
Obviously Campbell has nothing else to do, so he continues to search, even though he has no real interest in Billy White Feather. It is just a mystery he wanted to solve (that is, a picaresque story Everett wants to tell). He finally learns that this "tall, short, skinny, fat, white Indian with black blond hair" is in Denver, so he drives all the way there from Wyoming just to see what he looks like. Why? Because the story demands it.  He doesn't find Billy.  The twin horses die. The end.
This is less a Big Sky Wyoming story with Annie Proulx characters than a sly Native American story with a Sherman Alexie aspect.  Fun, but surely not among the year's best.

Lydia Davis, "The Seals"
Lydia Davis is right up there with Alice Munro for being one of the most honored short-story writers practicing that much neglected art form, having won a McArthur Prize, a Man Booker International Prize, etc. Many of her pieces are quite short and elliptically cryptic.  This one is longer than most of her stories and more a meditation than an anecdote—a story about the narrator thinking about her dead older sister on a Christmas Day train trip to Philadelphia. The story intersperses recollections of her sister with observations on what she sees out the train window. An added complication to her meditations is her recollection of her father, who died the same summer her sister did. The "seals" of the title refer to little white seals filled with charcoal her sister gave her—stuff  you put in your refrigerator to absorb odors. The meditations are the usual ones a person might have after a loved one dies—the difficulty believing the dead person is really gone, grief that one can sometimes ignore but that comes flooding back, the philosophical question about whether it is all over when the body is finished or whether we live on in some form.  The feelings are sincere and the writing is honest, but there is nothing extraordinary about this meditation, nothing to make it stand out as one of the best stories of the year—except that it is by Lydia Davis.

Lionel Shriver, "Kilifi Creek"
This is a concept story to illustrate an irony, which a summary of the plot will make clear: A young American woman is travelling in Africa, bumming off whoever will put her up.  She goes swimming one day and almost drowns. Several years later she is living in New York and accidently falls off a balcony to her death. In her comments at the end of the book, Shriver says she has always keep a list in the back of her head about times she almost died, e.g. a bike accident, and has always wanted to write a story about such moments. Then when she read a story in The New York Times about a young woman who fell to her death when a balcony collapsed, she decided to write that story--which, of course, is this story.
What makes it a not very pleasant story is that Shriver makes Liana, the young woman in question, an unlikeable exploitation artist who somehow deserves what she gets. She laughs at the couple who she exploits, is arrogant about her swimming ability and goes out too far, does not seem to have learned from her exploit, or any other near deaths she experiences later. Shriver does not like her very much and perhaps is just a bit too sardonically gleeful at the end when she describes Liana's descent from the balcony, as if from the perspective of the young woman herself:
"She fit in a wisp of disappointment before the fall was through. Her eyes tearing, the lights of high-rises blurred. Above, the evening sky rippled into the infinite ocean that had waited to greet her for fourteen years: largely, good years, really—gravy, a long and lucky reprieve. Then, of course, what had mattered was her body striking the plane, and now what mattered was not striking it—and what were the chances of that? By the time she reached the sidewalk, Liana had taken back her surprise.  At some point there was no almost. That had always been the message. There were bystanders, and they would get the message too."
This is just pulp writerly exploitation of the reader's emotions, it seems to me.  No message, except you live, you die. And you ought to be grateful for what lies in between those two facts.

Manuel Munoz, "The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA"
If you know that old country song written and sung by Donna Fargo, you may read this story, waiting for the allusion to appear.  It is the song of a woman so happy to be married to the man she loves, singing: "Thank you, oh Lord, for making him for me. And thank you for letting life turn out the way that I always thought it could be….Now shine on me, sunshine, Walk with me, world, it's a skippity-doo-dah-day. I'm the happiest girl in the whole USA."
This is a story of a sad situation in which Mexican immigrants illegally in the US to work on farms in central California are routinely reported by the farmers to the Mexican border patrol, who take them back to Mexico.  In this story, the narrator is a woman who is travelling south to Los Angeles hopefully meet her husband who once more must cross the border back into the US. She befriends a young woman on the bus who is new to all this. When they reach LA, the young woman's man is not there, and she has no money, so the narrator buys food for both of them and gets them into a motel. She also gives her her own comfortable shoes in exchange for the young woman's painful high heels. The story ends when the narrator meets up with her husband and they get on the bus for the long trip back home, perhaps to repeat the whole process all over again. She sits in the bus watching the other women in the rows in front of her:
"Ahead of me, the other women and their men face forward, together and stoic, all of them alert to the city streets, to what's passing by and what's coming. It's still love, the back of their heads seem to say to me. Not one woman is resting her head on her man's shoulder, so I sit upright and look straight out into the distance."
It's a touching story of one woman's strength and the difficulties facing Mexican immigrants—a rebuke to Donald Trump's proposed silly wall.  It is honest and straightforward, but it is not a great story, just a simple narrative depending on a sad cultural/economic situation for its emotional impact.

Russell Banks, "A Permanent of the Family"
Banks says in his end-of-the-book comments that this story actually happened pretty much as he tells it here, but that he had to wait until the principals of the story had forgiven one another "before I could subject the material to the pressures, needs, and requirements of fiction." Indeed the story begins with the narrator admitting that he is not sure he wants to tell this story on himself, even thirty-five years after it happened. He says his main motivation in telling the story, which has become a family legend, to tell it truthfully, even if it reflects badly on himself.
It is the story of a man wo has separated from his wife. Property has been settled and they have agreed on joint custody of the three children, but the issue to be decided is the care of the family dog, Sarge.  Although the wife insists on keeping the dog, the dog keeps slipping away to the narrator's house. "No one blames Sarge, of course, for rejecting joint custody," the narrator says.  What makes the story a story is the writerly urge Banks has to make Sarge somehow symbolic of the breakup, of what he calls the couple's lost innocence.
Then he accidently backs up over the dog and kills it--which leads to a mythic response: "All four daughters began to wail.  It was a primeval, keening, utterly female wail….Their father had slain a permanent member of the family. We all knew it the second we heard the thump and felt the bump.  But the girls knew something more. Instinctively, they understood the linkage between this moment, with Sarge dead beneath the wheels of my car, and my decision the previous summer to leave my wife.
He tries to dig a grave in the yard to bury the dog, but the ground is frozen. He swings a pick at the rock-hard ground, while the girls stand frightened by his wild swings, "as if watching their father avenge a crime they had not witnessed, delivering a punishment that exceeded the crime to a terrible degree."
And this is what a writer does—make meaning out of an accidental event—elevate a mere event into symbolic and representative meaning.  It is all just a little too self-conscious and self-serving for me. Nothing really "best" about it.

Dina Nayeri, "A Ride Out of Phrao"
This is the story of a forty-five-year-old Iranian woman named Shirin who has been living in Iowa and joins the Peace Corps to teach  in Phrao, a village in northern Thailand because she has had to declare bankruptcy, and Iran is not on the  Peace Corp list. We get details of her new life in the village, e.g. culture, superstitions, and her background, e.g. marriage, life in Iowa, birth of  her daughter.  She befriends one boy named Boonmee, who puts his hand on her breast and startles her. Her 20-year-old daughter comes to visit from America, but she is the typical "ugly American" who scorns the people and their traditions. She cannot tolerate the food and soon leaves. Shirin, who has been a doctor in Iran, is much more accepting of the people, and the story ends with the young boy who touched her breast mildly rebuking her for her suspicion of his motives by saying, "This is how we touch mothers."
It's a decent story about cultural differences and cultural acceptance, and generation differences, but just an ordinary story, competent but pedestrian in style and narrative structure. This is Tessa Hadley's favorite story, but her justification for her preference is generalized and impressionistic.  But then Tessa Hadley has never been one of my favorite writers either.

Becky Hagenston, "The Upside-Down World"
A parallel story of two couples who are destined to intersect.
First there is Gertrude and Jim, middle-aged siblings in the South of France in late August. Jim has responded to a call for help from his sister who is off her meds.
Then there is Elodie, a seventeen-year-old runaway whose mother has recently committed suicide, and who meets Ted when she tries to pick his pocket
And we bounce back and forth between their actions as Jim helplessly and haplessly tries to watch over crazy Gertrude, and as Ted colludes with an amoral Elodie.
The title comes from a line from a museum brochure describing the "topsy turvy" or upside down world of Marc Chagall.
But there is no Chagall magic in this story.

Brenda Peynado, "The History of Happiness"
Another young woman picking pockets while on the road, this time in Singapore. Her boyfriend left her to join Hindu monks while they were in India.  She meets two Indian men in a bar and they go to the beach to talk.  It could end in assault, she thinks, but it turns out they are both very nice guys, so all is well, that is, after she steals one's wallet, only to get it back to him later when she has a change of heart and a fear of getting caught. It's a first-person narrative, and we listen as the narrator/young woman undergoes  a shifting view point.  She finally sees "the hunger of the abyss was my own hunger."  Whatever that heavy ominousness means is left for the reader to guess.

Naira Kuzmich, "The Kingsley Drive Chorus"
The culture this time is Armenian neighborhood in Los Angeles.  The focus is on immigrant mothers whose sons are not adapting well.  The narrator says "something doesn't translate." There is Carmen and her son Zaven, who it seems is often in jail.  Then there is Mariam and her two sons, Robert and Vardan, who Carmen says have lead Zaven down the wrong path.  And the problem, it seems, is drugs, mainly marijuana.  We learn about Carmen's life and Zaven's life and Mariam's life.  It all ends inevitably badly, with a confrontation between Carmen and Mariam, with Mariam calling her boys criminals, and Carmen slapping her.  Then, Mariam finds Carmen at the end of a rope in the laundry room, and we see her holding Carmen in her arms as if she were still alive. Zaven serves six years and then gets married and lives happily ever after.  The other women in the neighborhood go to sleep at night beside their husbands wondering: "If all it took was them to see us dead, we too would've have done it ourselves."  And that's the story—a domestic, cultural drama suitable for television.

Lynn Freed, "The Way Things Are Going"
This is a short piece about a South African woman who has and her mother's home invaded by black policemen in post-Apartheid South Africa. She gets hit on the head, urinated on, and almost raped. So the two of them move to America with her older sister. Furman pretty well sums up its only interest—which simply cultural/political: "a country develops from unjust tyranny to lawlessness.'